Thursday, February 9, 2017

Algorithms Hidden Impact on How We Think

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Never before has human society experienced anything like it. Depending on who you talk to, algorithms are now, or are about to be, significant drives of human culture. (If you are hearing this for the first time from me, we are both way behind the curve on this topic.)

Algorithms are powerful programs that increasingly influence an individual's world view. Their ubiquitous use may explain our growing political polarity, our growing knowledge gap in current affairs and even why our neighbors seem radicalized. That's not including their impact in other area of our life, from high speed stock trading to NSA cyber spying. But for impressionable or vulnerable individuals searching the internet, the impacts can be devastating.

Internet companies like Google and Facebook are among those who rely on algorithms to provide the content that individuals user most likely to want to see. When you search for something on Google, or like something on Facebook, for instance, you develop a record of your preferences that results in you seeing more and more of the content you prefer over time. This essentially creates a positive feedback loop. That is, each time you search for similar terms, Googles algorithms amplifies the results to bring you more and more of the related content in your search results. In other words, what we want to find is what we tend to see more of in a self reinforcing cycles. This will eventually alter our view of how we see the world. 

Dylann Foot Roof is a cases in point. You will recall he was a 21 year old white male who killed nine people in a 2015 massacre at a historical black church in Charleston, South Carolina.  Authorities found his manifesto that showed he was involved in white nationalist websites on the internet for about three years. A recent report by the Southern Policy Law Center details how Google search engine algorithms served a key part in radicalizing this young man who grew up in an otherwise stable, normal home.  Can the effects of algorithms also help explain how citizens living here can become radicalized terrorists for ISIS?

Increasingly, algorithms decide what gets attention, and what is ignored; and even what gets published or censored in our search for knowledge on the internet. It is a powerful force with unforeseen consequences at best. Just as easily they can be used for sinister purposes as well if we aren't careful.

The following are excerpts from a report presented by the Center for Internet and Human Rights (CIHR) entitled, Ethic of Algorithms. It serves as a good primer on what these powerful programs are and can do.  CIHR promotes academic research about technology and society to inform public and academic debates.  

  • Algorithms are increasingly used  in hiring (and firing), deciding who gets a job and who doesn't. It is among the most powerful gate-keeping function in society.
  • Algorithms influence how we perceive the world, often without us realizing it. by channeling our attention.
  • Facebook algorithms decide what we see or don't see. Newsfeed algorithm filters content without our knowing why.
  • Facebook won't say how the algorithm works, It's proprietary. Without knowing the exact code, nobody can evaluate how your newsfeed is composed.
  • Complex algorithms are incomprehensible to outsiders but they have values, biases, and potential discrimination built in
  • Without algorithms many applications would be unusable. We need them to cope with the enormous amounts of data. But we must be aware how they work
  • Algorithms are not neutral, but rather they perpetuate the prejudices of their creators. 

They must be known to the user

"Since algorithms make increasingly important decisions about our lives, users need to be informed about them. Knowledge about automated decision-making in everyday services is still very limited among consumers. Raising awareness should be at the heart of the debate about ethics of algorithms."
We are already at the point where regulating computer algorithms is essential for our collective well being, yet most people aren't even aware the threats and problems they pose. I know I wasn't until very recently. I hope this brief blog posting and the links above encourage others to explore this topic further.
(NOTE: The second paragraph at the top was added on Feb. 13, 2017 for further clarity.)

For an excellent TED Talk on Algorithms and their impact in daily life, see the following video:

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